Posted by: kshayes513 | July 19, 2009

The Traveling Worldbuilder, Part 2: Grits and Small Town America

Part 2 of my visit to the Ozarks in Missouri, where I met small town midwestern America.

I knew I had reached the edge of the South by three infallible signs.

1. “Where” is married to “at” without possibility of divorce, as in: “where’s your car at?” and “I’ll show you where you’re room’s at.”

Do people from different regions or planets, or professions  in your world use different expressions, vocabularies and speaking styles, or do they all sound the same?

2. I couldn’t get any fresh fruit for breakfast (even the grapefruit juice was canned), though I could get biscuits and gravy at any meal. In my opinion, biscuits and gravy plus chicken and dumplings (with that same gravy) are the reason that the southern tier is fatter than the rest of the country. They’re everywhere!

3. I could have really good grits or really bad ones. Elsewhere in the country, I might occasionally get average to decent grits, because Yankee cooks at least take some trouble to learn how to cook this foreign dish. Only in their home region, will I find a short order cook to whom grits are such a commonplace that he/she has no problem serving up a dish that’s watery, gravelly, undercooked and cold. Conversely, only here will I find cooks who, with grits bred in the bone, can cook a bowl to the perfect blend of cornmeal graininess and melt-on-the-tongue creaminess, and serve it still steaming hot.

What foods are special to your world? And how do regional diets affect the residents’ appearance and perhaps their scent?

I’ve lived most of my life in small suburban towns, and even, for a few years, in an isolated rural town.When I drive through places like central Missouri, where small town follows small town along the highway, I always wonder how people make their living out here? They’re too far from a big city to commute, and there’s little sign of any local industry or agriculture. Can a whole regional economy be just based on people providing services to their neighbors? Selling clothes, food, gas, hardware, car repairs, carpentry, or whatever, just sending the same money round and round?

I stopped for lunch in a tiny town and found myself tallying the businesses to see if I could find one that wasn’t just a sustenance service business, one that actually provided a product that could bring fresh money in. Nope. Not even the trains stopped there, though they stopped traffic on Main Street when they crossed it.

Certain small town cliches apply just about everywhere: people who have always lived there can be very insular, especially if they’ve never traveled farther than the local resort or big city. Everyone knows everyone else’s past and most of their secrets. News of any kind goes all over town within hours, whether its true or not. Most residents are descended from people who settled there generations ago, so if you move into the town from elsewhere, you’ll remain a newcomer and an outsider even after 40 years. The townies might respect and like you, but they still know you’re not really one of them.

There’s another aspect to small town life that goes with the economy. Most families are probably divided between those who stay and make do, and those who leave to find better opportunities. That tends to make sometimes painful divisions, especially if staying vs leaving is seen as a matter of loyalty vs abandoning family, or a matter of failure vs success.

Does your world have urban and rural subcultures? Which values and circumstances divide them, and which unite them?

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